Earth’s energy imbalance causing it to retain more heat


IN SPACE – In this handout photo provided by the European Space Agency (ESA) on July 17, 2014, German ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst took this image of the Earth reflecting light from the sun whilst aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Gerst returned to earth on November 10, 2014 after spending six months on the International Space Station completing an extensive scientific programme, known as the ‘Blue Dot’ mission (after astronomer Carl Sagan’s description of Earth, as seen on a photograph taken by the Voyager probe from six billion kilometres away). (Photo by Alexander Gerst / ESA via Getty Images)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Recent data from NOAA and NASA indicate that the Earth’s atmosphere is retaining heat twice as fast as it did just 15 years ago.

This comes as the two organizations discovered that the Earth’s energy balance has increased from 2005 to 2019. The balance — or in our case “imbalance” — is the difference between the amount of energy absorbed by Earth and the amount of energy emitted by it. 

When incoming energy equals outgoing energy, Earth’s energy is in balance. More energy going out than coming in, and Earth will cool. But more energy coming in than going out and Earth will heat up. And that’s exactly what the minds at NOAA and NASA discovered recently.

According to, to quantify this change, the team used data from two separate sources – NASA’s Clouds and the Earth’s Radiant Energy System (CERES) and a system run by NOAA called Argo. CERES specializes in how much energy is entering and leaving Earth. 

Incoming energy comes to us from the Sun and is then re-emitted back into space in a number of ways including being reflected by clouds, snowpack and the polar icecaps.

Courtesy of The National Weather Service

Argo, on the other hand, estimates the rate of temperature increase for the oceans. Ninety percent of the energy that is absorbed by the Earth system is absorbed into the oceans, so any significant energy imbalance would be seen as a heating up of the oceans.  

Data from both sensing platforms pointed to the same conclusions – that Earth was absorbing more energy than it was emitting, that energy is then stored by the ocean, and the annual amount of energy stored has increased dramatically in the recent past.

Information from both CERES and Argo indicate that two significant factors have led to the increase in Earth’s energy imbalance.

The first being that there was an overall decrease in cloud cover between 2005 and 2019 due to what’s known as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO). In the middle of the survey period, a warm phase of this oscillation took hold, which caused a global reduction in cloud coverage, and thus less clouds to reflect the Sun’s energy.

The second factor is an increase in greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane, which trap heat in the atmosphere, capturing outgoing radiation that would otherwise escape into space. Emissions of these gases are increasing due to human activity. So our own emissions are making it harder for heat to escape Earth.

According to the American Geophysical Union (AGU), the warming drives other changes, such as snow and ice melt, and increased water vapor and cloud changes that can further enhance the warming.

While this study offers just a snapshot of the Earth’s energy balance in the last 15 years, the study does conclude that unless the rate of heat uptake subsides, greater changes in climate than are already occurring should be expected.

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